Reagan’s Farewell, 1989: We the People need no government

Posted on April 2, 2015. Filed under: American history, Politics, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , |

As we move along through Reagan’s final speech from the Oval Office in January 1989 in our series on his farewell address, we come to his reinterpretation of the Constitution and the purpose of the American people.

When you’ve got to the point when you can celebrate the anniversaries of your 39th birthday, you can sit back sometimes, review your life, and see it flowing before you. For me there was a fork in the river, and it was right in the middle of my life. I never meant to go into politics. It wasn’t my intention when I was young. But I was raised to believe you had to pay your way for the blessings bestowed on you. I was happy with my career in the entertainment world, but I ultimately went into politics because I wanted to protect something precious.

—The bit of folksy humor that begins this paragraph quickly transitions into something far darker. Reagan is a happy entertainer who is forced by a great danger to change careers and enter politics. What danger? Well, it is set up by this seemingly innocuous description of himself: “I never meant to go into politics. It wasn’t my intention when I was young. I was raised to believe you had to pay your way for the blessings bestowed on you.”

What does this mean? It’s a bold non-sequitor: why would going into politics contradict a belief in “paying your way”? Why is an intention to go into politics the opposite of pulling your own weight? For Reagan, and for the American people who had listened to him and lived with his economic and political policies for eight years, however, the meaning is very clear. Politics is government, and government is bad. The president who introduced the concept of the evil “welfare mother” (or “welfare queen”), who decimated unions and worked hard to convince the nation that anyone on unemployment or welfare or Medicaid (but not Medicare) was a dishonest, un-American liar and cheater would of course see those people as not “paying their way”, as asking for blessings to be bestowed upon them from the government for no good reason. And the government who bestows those undeserved blessings is bad; it is a threat to democracy itself. So entering that government was a tough move for Reagan that he only took out of dire necessity.

Ours was the first revolution in the history of mankind that truly reversed the course of government, and with three little words: “We the People.” “We the People” tell the government what to do; it doesn’t tell us. “We the People” are the driver; the government is the car, and we decide where it should go, and by what route, and how fast. Almost all the world’s constitutions are documents in which governments tell the people what their privileges are. Our Constitution is a document in which “We the People” tell the government what it is allowed to do. “We the People” are free. This belief has been the underlying basis for everything I’ve tried to do these past 8 years.

But back in the 1960’s, when I began, it seemed to me that we’d begun reversing the order of things — that through more and more rules and regulations and confiscatory taxes, the government was taking more of our money, more of our options, and more of our freedom. I went into politics in part to put up my hand and say, “Stop.” I was a citizen politician, and it seemed the right thing for a citizen to do.

I think we have stopped a lot of what needed stopping. And I hope we have once again reminded people that man is not free unless government is limited. There’s a clear cause and effect here that is as neat and predictable as a law of physics: “As government expands, liberty contracts.”

—First paragraph? Fine. The comment about all the other constitutions in the world is incorrect, but we can go with the general flow of this statement about our own form of government. (Although the original wording was “We the States”, which kind of ruins it for Reagan, because originally the framers wanted a political unit, the governments of the states, to dictate terms. “The People” is more folksy for Reagan but was actually a very hard sell at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, where most framers were intent on building up the power of state governments.)

Now for the second paragraph. What can those “rules and regulations” in the 1960s that were so threatening to our democracy be? Yes, it was the Great Society legislation of the Johnson presidency, including civil rights legislation. Reagan was closer to those 1787 delegates who wanted to speak in the name of the state governments than he was to “the People” in that he was not a fan of the federal government telling states what to do. He was not a fan of affirmative action or the Equal Rights Amendment or any of the social legislation passed by Congress under Johnson to guarantee equal protection under the law because that legislation was federal. Reagan found unlikely bedfellows in the South on this topic. Reagan believed that the federal government—and the state governments, too—should not pass any social legislation to help groups that faced entrenched racial, sexual, or ethnic discrimination. Those people needed to get with the American way and help themselves—to pay their own way, like white people did. Like he did.

The dangerous social legislation quickly morphs into dangerous taxation, because many of the social programs Johnson started (like Head Start) were federally funded. Taking money from some Americans to help other Americans was “taking more of our money, more of our options, more of our freedom.” Who “our” or “we” is is unspoken, but it’s clearly referring to hardworking white America.

Reagan is not kidding when he says “I stopped a lot of what needed stopping.” Taxes were cut (and then raised, but only to pay for defense spending), welfare was crucified in an intense attack campaign, Medicaid spending, education spending were all cut in an attempt to give hardworking white America back its money. Then Reagan says “man is not free unless government is limited… as government expands, liberty contracts.”

This is an echo of his First Inaugural speech in 1981, in which he said:

The economic ills we suffer have come upon us over several decades. They will not go away in days, weeks, or months, but they will go away. They will go away because we, as Americans, have the capacity now, as we have had in the past, to do whatever needs to be done to preserve this last and greatest bastion of freedom.

In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.

From time to time, we have been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. But if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else? All of us together, in and out of government, must bear the burden. The solutions we seek must be equitable, with no one group singled out to pay a higher price.

We hear much of special interest groups. Our concern must be for a special interest group that has been too long neglected. It knows no sectional boundaries or ethnic and racial divisions, and it crosses political party lines. It is made up of men and women who raise our food, patrol our streets, man our mines and our factories, teach our children, keep our homes, and heal us when we are sick—professionals, industrialists, shopkeepers, clerks, cabbies, and truckdrivers. They are, in short, “We the people,” this breed called Americans.

The “economic ills” are social programs to help the poor and discriminated against, and “they will go away” because we must do “whatever needs to be done to preserve this last and greatest bastion of freedom”. Like our ancestors, we will fight tyranny; the tyranny of democracy, apparently. The “elite” government that created social programs that take money from good hardworking white people and give them to “special interest groups” will be destroyed, and balance and democracy will be restored when the neglected, oppressed white American is safe from having to help those insidious special interest groups. By 1989, Reagan was satisfied that our democracy was safe from helping people.

It’s ironic that later in this speech Reagan will reference John Winthrop’s City on a Hill address. He clearly did not read the part where Winthrop said

…we must be knit together in this work as one man, we must entertain each other in brotherly affection, we must be willing to abridge our selves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities, we must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberallity, we must delight in each other, make other’s conditions our own—rejoice together, mourn together, labor, and suffer together, always having before our eyes our Commission and Community in the work, our Community as members of the same body, so shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace, the Lord will be our God and delight to dwell among us, as his own people and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways, so that we shall see much more of his wisdom, power, goodness and truth than formerly we have been acquainted with…

—“We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities”: in other words, people who have money must give some of it to those who don’t. That’s the democratic ideal our nation would be founded on 157 years later. Reagan claims that the “breed” he is describing has no ethnic or racial divisions, but his eight years of demonizing black and Latino Americans as “welfare queens” and criminals proved that to be untrue.

Nothing is less free than pure communism—and yet we have, the past few years, forged a satisfying new closeness with the Soviet Union. I’ve been asked if this isn’t a gamble, and my answer is no because we’re basing our actions not on words but deeds. The detente of this 1970’s was based not on actions but promises. They’d promise to treat their own people and the people of the world better. But the gulag was still the gulag, and the state was still expansionist, and they still waged proxy wars in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Well, this time, so far, it’s different. President Gorbachev has brought about some internal democratic reforms and begun the withdrawal from Afghanistan. He has also freed prisoners whose names I’ve given him every time we’ve met.

—We segue with Reagan to the outside world again, and to the Soviet Union, the epitome of the unfree state that America will become if we don’t stop giving money to the poor. We will pass over the fact that the U.S. was also fighting proxy wars in Africa, Asia, and Latin America to say that this first mention of Gorbachev is very interesting in hindsight, as this speech was given in January 1989; by that time, Moscow had already begun to lose control of some of its republics, and in just a few months the Soviet people would vote for delegates to the new Congress of the People’s Deputies. The Soviet Union was on the brink of collapse. The Revolutions of 1989 that would dissolve the Eastern bloc were just months away. Gorbachev would allow all of this to happen, and would facilitate the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the creation of a democratic Russia.

Yet to hear Reagan tell it, it is Reagan alone who is pushing democracy, lecturing Gorbachev on what freedom is, and giving him the names of political prisoners to release. “President Gorbachev has brought about some internal democratic reforms” is the understatement of the century.

But life has a way of reminding you of big things through small incidents. Once, during the heady days of the Moscow summit, Nancy and I decided to break off from the entourage one afternoon to visit the shops on Arbat Street — that’s a little street just off Moscow’s main shopping area. Even though our visit was a surprise, every Russian there immediately recognized us and called out our names and reached for our hands. We were just about swept away by the warmth. You could almost feel the possibilities in all that joy. But within seconds, a KGB detail pushed their way toward us and began pushing and shoving the people in the crowd. It was an interesting moment. It reminded me that while the man on the street in the Soviet Union yearns for peace, the government is Communist. And those who run it are Communists, and that means we and they view such issues as freedom and human rights very differently.

We must keep up our guard, but we must also continue to work together to lessen and eliminate tension and mistrust. My view is that President Gorbachev is different from previous Soviet leaders. I think he knows some of the things wrong with his society and is trying to fix them. We wish him well. And we’ll continue to work to make sure that the Soviet Union that eventually emerges from this process is a less threatening one. What it all boils down to is this: I want the new closeness to continue. And it will, as long as we make it clear that we will continue to act in a certain way as long as they continue to act in a helpful manner. If and when they don’t, at first pull your punches. If they persist, pull the plug. It’s still trust but verify. It’s still play, but cut the cards. It’s still watch closely. And don’t be afraid to see what you see.

—For Reagan, the KGB still run the Soviet Union and “while the man on the street years for peace, the government is Communist”, and will never allow freedom and human rights. One gets the feeling that Reagan would be genuinely astounded by what happened in the Soviet government just a few months after this speech. Yes, Gorbachev was very “different from previous Soviet leaders”. The folksily boxing and poker metaphors at the end would all be made obsolete by the open and unimpeded dismantling of the Soviet government led by Gorbachev.

Next time: Closing thoughts on what it means to be an American in the looming 1990s

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